In the wake of the election, some of my friends are stuck down a Hell Well. They’ve used their worry and fear for America’s future to dig themselves into a dark pit of despair, some of them so deep that the only light they see comes from the demonic flames further down. I recognize it because I spent most of my life down a Hell Well.
Thanks to an undiagnosed anxiety disorder, I passed decades in fear of one horrifying future or another, or the fear of their being no future at all. Only in the last six of my 42 years–a tiny 14% of my life–have I crawled out for any significant period of time. That was only after my life became so unbearable that I hit the emotional and psychological bottom of the Hell Well.
I’d dug myself down with my worry, and I’d stay down there for years because I’d been futilely trying to worry myself out. It doesn’t work. The tools you use to dig can’t be used to climb. I had to forge myself new ones. And while not everyone who’s dug themselves into a Hell Well has an anxiety disorder, we can all use the same tools to climb out.
You won’t and shouldn’t emerge into a personal Obladiobladaverse where you blithely ignore real problems, assuming they’ll sort themselves out. But you can reenter normal life knowing that worry and despair erode your ability to improve the future and prevent you from learning from the past, all while wrecking the present.
Want to try to work your way out of the Well? Okay, cool, I’m going to tell you an ancient magical secret you need to start. But first make sure you’re sitting down and not operating heavy machinery, because this will blow your head open like a microwaved egg:
It’s okay not to worry.
Most people probably just closed the browser tab out of annoyance. Since you haven’t, you might be like I was. Down the Hell Well, you can’t convince yourself of the essential truth of that baldfaced statement. It doesn’t help when words you hear echoing off the sides of the Well are, “If you’re not worried, you’re not paying attention,” or “Worry is the only smart option.” Those sentiments are 100% false. It’s not just okay to not worry; it’s necessary.
Not worrying doesn’t mean ignoring problems. When faced with a foreboding future (say a Donald Trump presidency) concern is valid and rational. So is some fear. So are consideration and deliberation about how to live, cope, fight — what to do. But concern, fear, consideration, and deliberation are not worry. Worry is the futile rumination about a fear and the consequences of that fear. For example, this conversation you might have with yourself:
If your brain were a car, worry would be starting the engine, shifting into neutral, and slamming on the gas. It makes your car work really hard and gives off the same sounds and smells as moving forward, but it takes you nowhere and wears your engine down in the process. It’s not just okay to not do it; it’s necessary.
To convince yourself that it’s okay not to worry, you need to believe another essential truth that’s equally simple but, when stuck in the Hell Well, much, much harder to accept. So hard that, in the pit of my own anxiety disorder, the reason I couldn’t persuade myself of this truth was that I never even conceived it as a possibility:
Worry accomplishes nothing.
When you’re worrying, it seems so useful. You feel like you’re giving mental attention to a problem. You feel like you’re considering it in the deep, thorough way it deserves. I hear friends say, “If only I’d worried more about a Trump presidency, I’d have done more to prevent it.” In reality, if you’d worried more about a Trump presidency, you’d have sat quietly, trapped in your mind, while the world moved along around you. You’d have been stopped on the freeway, grinding your engine into dust, while everyone else sped by.
Worrying is the illusion of constructive thought. When faced with a problem, a constructive thought says, “How do I solve this problem?” Worry says, “Why can’t I solve this problem?” Constructive thought says, “Should I try this solution?” Worry says, “What happens when this solution doesn’t work?” When you’re worrying, you’re thinking about a problem, but you’re not thinking through a problem. You’re just running your brain in neutral.
Here is a fact: you’ve never solved a problem through worry. No matter how much you fretted over it, no matter how much the worry you threw at it seemed to be weakening its armor, you didn’t solve the problem until you put aside the worry and replaced it with constructive thought. For a particularly worrisome problem, that probably didn’t happen in one instant–you didn’t suddenly stop worrying and start reasoning. You likely, as most of us do, had moments of rational, constructive thought in the midst of your worry that allowed you to work through to resolution. You solved your problem not because of your worry, but in spite of it. Because:
Worry prevents constructive thought.
When it comes to conscious thinking, our brains pretty much do one thing at a time. We don’t get to both worry and think constructively at the same time. It’s one or the other. In those of us most susceptible to worry, constructive thought loses out. Worry overwhelms the bandwidth of our brains like a denial-of-service attack. Every moment spent worrying is a moment of constructive thought lost, and those moments add up. For people with OCD like me, who are biochemically incapable of easily putting worry out of our minds, those lost moments can pile up so quickly that we lose hours at a stretch to worry. Those useless hours eventually add up to wasted days, months, and years.
OCD or not, worrying takes its toll on constructive thought even when you’re not actively worrying. That’s because worrying wears down your brain. We’ve all experienced mental exhaustion–the everyday brain sleepiness that comes from hours spent studying, writing, preparing a Powerpoint presentation, diagnosing patients, plotting to outsmart the Sizzler, etc. That feeling that you need to turn off your brain for a while. Well, anyone who’s dealt with serious worry will tell you that it can cause just as much mental exhaustion as a day of work. Studies even suggest that stressful mental activity results in mental exhaustion more readily than positive mental activity. Worry saps the brainpower you need for useful constructive thought.
More insidiously, worry destroys constructive thought by wrecking your emotional state. Consider the emotions worry often produces: fear, sadness, loneliness, despondency. Worry generates them the way a coal-fired power plant generates CO2 and, just like CO2, their negative effects linger and compound. Fear leads to irrationality. Sadness saps the will and the ability to function, let alone to function constructively. Loneliness, especially loneliness from the belief that others don’t share or understand your thoughts, leads to a sense of isolation that wears away your desire for self-improvement. (Not to mention that isolation breeds more worry, launching a vicious cycle.)
And then there’s despondency. The feeling that nothing will ever improve, that it’s pointless to even try. Despondency is the unavoidable byproduct of uncontrolled worry, and it appears surprisingly quickly and easily. When bad news breaks, you can see casual despondency shoot through Twitter at warp speed, bubbling up in two ubiquitous words: “We’re fucked.”
Despondency is the most vile product of worry, and the most vital and essential reason to fight worry is to fight despondency. The truth? Worry is what you use to dig the Hell Well, but despondency is the Well itself. And the deeper the Hell Well becomes, the more you weaken the most potent and powerful tool you have to climb out:
Click here to read part 2 →